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NONFICTION : ORDINARY HEROES: CHANA SZENES AND THE DREAM OF ZION by Peter Hay (Putnam's: $22.50; 271 pp., with photographs).

May 31, 1987|Ruth Broyde-Sharon

As ordinary, everyday men and women, haven't we all wondered if we have what it takes to become a hero? Would we have the strength to overcome our fears and the courage to act even in the face of certain death?

A young woman who agonized over these very questions during her short life and answered them in her death at age 23 was Chana Szenes, one of Israel's most celebrated heroines.

The daughter of an accomplished Hungarian playwright--and a gifted poet in her own right--Chana left her widowed mother in Budapest in 1939 and journeyed to Palestine with a group of young pioneers "to realize the dream of Zion," to create a homeland for Jews.

After receiving agricultural training, she joined a kibbutz and immersed herself in her daily chores, all the while making plans to bring her mother and her beloved brother Yuri to Israel.

When Chana heard the horror stories about Europe's Jews being rounded up and massacred, she knew she had to act. But how could she, an ordinary young girl, change the fate of her people?

Unbeknown to her family and friends, Chana trained secretly as a paratrooper and convinced her commander to parachute her behind German lines in February, 1944, one of the most daring spy missions of World War II.

Chana was captured, tortured, imprisoned and executed. During the five months of her torture, she exhibited an indomitable spirit that infuriated the Germans. Her heroism in jail, as she valiantly tried to raise the morale of her fellow prisoners, her defiance of the German judge in the courtroom during her trial, and then, finally, her execution while her mother was making frantic efforts to secure her daughter's release, make a spellbinding story.

Author Peter Hay, also born in Budapest and a friend of the Szenes family, compiled "Ordinary Heroes" from first-hand recollections of Chana's family, her friends and army comrades in Isr1634036782this book came out of his own self-examination. "Chana died a martyr's death for the idea that to be good one must act, and that one person can make a difference." Chana acted, and that's what was special about her, Hay concludes.

Chana Szenes was no ordinary hero. Can a hero be ordinary?

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